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Access to quality content is one of the biggest challenges in the Indonesian education sector. Whilst students from upper-middle-class families in Jakarta can afford private schools with excellent facilities and well-qualified teachers, their peers who go to underfunded public schools have to be content with outdated facilities and underpaid teachers.

Meanwhile, university entrances are getting more competitive each year. Going to cram school –known as bimbingan belajar or bimbel – has become the obvious next step. Studying in bimbels operated by a big franchise cost about IDR 10 million to IDR 30 million (US$708 to US$2,125) per year, a sum not afforded by the middle- and lower-middle classes.

So, how have startups answered this clarion call?

Zenius.net is one of the most notable names in providing study material via desktop and mobile devices. Bringing the bimbel experience online, Zenius has free and paid membership for students who wish to study without having to sit in a classroom. It offers free material in the form of PDF files containing a compilation of problem sets, whilst the paid materials are videos explaining basic concepts.

When it comes to teaching methods, Zenius stresses the importance of understanding, with an aim to provide a ‘great learning experience’ for students.

“Every child is born with the intrinsic motivation to learn,” says Wisnu OPS, CEO of Zenius.

“But this motivation is somehow lost in our current education system … Taught by teachers with no better understanding of the concept than them. We want to bring it back by encouraging fun learning, and to make sure that they really understand the concept, not just memorise things,” he adds.

Similarly, IniBudi.org (“This is Budi”) also provides online content that students can access for free. Named after a popular character that seems to appear in every textbook, the website has its own team that produces videos explaining concepts as taught in schools, but in a fun and engaging way.

Apart from content based on the national curriculum, IniBudi also creates videos of professionals talking about their jobs. “If you visit schools across the country, and you ask students what they want to be when they grow up … The answers are most likely ‘a policeman’ and ‘a doctor’. Not that it is bad. But we want to show them that there are many more options out there,” says Wilita Putrinda, Managing Director of IniBudi.

Putrinda also explains how the startup complements its digital activities with offline engagement by talking to teachers and parents about educational issues, and most importantly, how to use the products.

“In the future, we would also like to branch out to mobile apps and paid content,” Putrinda adds.

Meanwhile, Ruangguru.com (‘Teacher’s room’) takes on a different angle in helping students achieve desired results. Started in 2014 as an online marketplace for private tutors in various school subjects, the company now brands itself as an end-to-end solution provider for educational needs.

“We are about to launch an online test platform for students undertaking final examination and public university entrance tests. It has always been a challenge to find a comprehensive collection of past exam question lists [for students to practice with]. We are planning to distribute it for free first, in order to make it accessible to everyone,” says Ikhsan Rahardian, Business Associate of Ruangguru.

Also Read: “If you can make it in Indonesia, you can make it anywhere in Southeast Asia”

It takes a village

The 2010 census revealed that 50.21 per cent of Indonesians live in rural areas. As remnants of the centralistic New Order regime, there is a wide disparity of development between Jakarta as the centre of all economic activities and many other places across the archipelago.

To be able to reach out to students in rural areas is certainly one of the challenges startups have. IniBudi answered it by creating ‘Dukung Belajar’, a programme where it distributed flash disks containing study material to students in the Western Southeast Maluku regency.

The flash disks were gathered through crowdsourcing, whilst the distribution was conducted in partnership with Indonesia Mengajar, a non-profit movement that recruits, trains and assigns volunteers to work as school teachers in rural Indonesia.

“We have the content, in (the) form of videos … These videos cannot be played without (the) Internet and there is very limited Internet in the area. The government had this programme where they installed WiFi in schools, but the router only works for 30 minutes a day. Meanwhile, Indonesia Mengajar knows these areas well, and they know how to reach these students. It was a very great form of partnership,” Putrinda explains.

By utilising the Internet, Zenius too is able to reach out to students in rural areas. The CEO could not contain his excitement as he told this author about a photo tagged by one user on Twitter. It was of a young girl working on a laptop in what seemed to be a paddy field.

“Our survey showed that we are able to reach about 20-30 rural areas. Mobility definitely helps people to get Internet access, even with our current phone penetration number,” he says.

But how about those with no Internet access?

Putrinda painfully recalled the time when the team visited a village in Ujung Kulon, Banten province. After talking to a group of students about IniBudi, one student raised her hand only to tell her, “But the Internet cafe is too far away, ma’am!”

Lack of Internet access is not only a problem for those living in rural areas. In an interview with BBC Indonesia, Teguh Hartanto, Head of Poverty and Development Study, Institute for Economic and Society Study, Faculty of Economics, University of Indonesia, stated that migration has caused a shifting of lower income citizens from the rural to urban areas. This indicates that even in big cities such as Jakarta, there would be students who would be too poor to own even a feature phone.

Rahardian admitted that in answering this particular challenge, Ruangguru has to begin by taking small steps. By partnering with a government-run child sponsorship programme, the company gives a percentage of its revenue to help support education for needy students.

“We keep on thinking of new ways to contribute,” he promises.

This leads to a concern that startups can only contribute as far as the nation’s infrastructure can allow them. “In order to make the programme succeed, it has to be supported from the offline side. We cannot rely on the online side alone,” says Putrinda, stressing the importance of a 360 degree approach.

Also Read: Indonesia wants to accelerate its gaming industry

Does this mean that there is no happy ending for the story?

Apparently not.

In May 2015, Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Rudiantara, announced that the government will continue the Universal Service Obligation (USO) programme after a brief hiatus. The programme, which consists of providing phone and Internet services to rural areas, is a means to narrow down development disparity between each region in the country.

“By far there are at least 50 regencies that have not been reached by optical fibre network. Not only in the Eastern part of Indonesia, but also across the nation,” explains Rudiantara. “Using the budget for USO, we encourage operators to contribute in this programme,” he adds.

Good news also comes from the other side. “I have recently been informed by Google Indonesia that there is a 200 per cent increase in views for educational videos on YouTube. There is indeed a strong interest from the public to see more of this (initiative),” concludes Putrinda.

There is definitely hope for the future.

Image Credit: Flickr